Caring for a parent, Dementia

Circle Game

I didn’t know it would be so hard, taking Mama to the second memorial service of a dear friend in the past several weeks.

Jo, Mama tells Jo’s two daughters numerous times as they embrace her before and after the service, helped her so much after my father’s death. “She got me through that hard time” she tearily says. Jo’s own husband, my pediatrician, died much too early at 47 after just 16 years of marriage. They tell her she helped their mother, too.

But it isn’t their embraces and Mama’s tears and theirs that is hard, sweet as that is.

They know that our mothers went to lunch every Friday at the fish shop restaurant that used to be in town. They called themselves the Chowder Chums and, because they were both transplants from the deep south, they talked southern together and laughed at themselves. I didn’t know any of that. There are pictures of Jo with my mother in the slide show shown during the service, both of them looking much younger; and with other friends who are gone now.

But it isn’t their loving words and remembrances that is hard, touched as I am that my mother was known. It isn’t the awareness at how much I didn’t know about her life because I didn’t care enough to find out for three and a half decades, though I feel sucker-punched to realize that.

Although Jo was active in the local church where the service was held, the crowd is small. Jo had moved to Seattle to be near her daughter several years ago; and most of her friends are gone from here too—moved on to other cities or other realms. It took me aback to see one of my father’s co-workers and his wife, whom I hadn’t seen in many years, grayed and elderly.

But it isn’t the knowledge that these women are outliving friends and that soon their generation will be gone that choked me up, though it made me sad—and a little frightened.

The eulogy was delivered by Jo’s eldest daughter, and I sat in the pew imagining one day, that will come too soon, my sisters and I doing the same thing in this very space and that was hard to think about.

I loved the slide show: pictures of Jo from her birth to her death just a month short of her 90th birthday. She had a lovely life, up until the too-soon death of her beloved—and then her grief finally vanquished by grandchildren. A photograph of Jo as a college graduate in Raleigh, NC in front of an apartment building that I instantly recognized made me a little homesick.

She fell in love with Seattle on a road trip west with friends and moved across the country and worked as a librarian and drove a bookmobile. The bookmobile is one of my most vivid early childhood memories and it made me a little nostalgic.

The music stopped for several of the slides, brilliantly and poignantly representing her husband’s death—the girls’ father’s death. When I realized it wasn’t a technical glitch, I had a hard time swallowing.

But it wasn’t any of that that brought on my tears.

What snatched my breath was after the stroke, after the dementia that claimed her mind. As the pictures flashed by on the screen, I suddenly didn’t recognize her any more. I was glad Mama couldn’t see them; she wouldn’t have known her dear friend either. Age and disease can be so cruel. To see the progression of the happy child to a fresh-faced young woman in cap and gown facing her future, marrying her beloved, mothering her daughters, recovering from tragedy, embracing grandchildren; to see the transformation of this vibrant, strong, smart, independent, sweet-faced woman circling back into some sort of aged version of infancy was just flat out impossibly hard. It was no longer a normal progression of age; she was on fast forward and rapid rewind at the same time.

As tears rolled unfettered down my face I thought for the umpteenth time how lucky we are—my mother and her daughters and their children and theirs—that our mother and grandmother and great-grandmother is still so fully with us. And the knowledge that that could all change in a flash with an unseen traveling blood clot that reaches its destination is mystery we live with moment to moment.

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